9 May - 7 June 2001

Latest work

Tatsuzo Shimaoka Shimaoka's ceramics are always a delight to behold. For most of the time in Britain we are limited to engaging with his work through printed reproductions. His pots photograph well, for which we must be thankful, as we should be for the now quite substantial body of publications devoted to or featuring his work. But there's nothing like seeing the real thing, of being able to explore the subtleties of colour, texture and mass of what are, even when they are decorated with bright enamels, relatively restrained exercises in vessel-making. To see Shimaoka's work returning to the Galerie Besson after a period of ten years is thus a very great pleasure indeed.

The catalogue to the 1991 exhibition carried a substantial essay by Shimaoka's friend and admirer Sir Hugh Cortazzi. It is essential reading for anyone interested in Shimaoka's background and working methods. It is also enlightening for its discussion of his negotiation, as Hamada's leading student, of the doctrines of the mingei or Japanese Folk Craft movement. Writing of the dilemma faced by makers who seek to assert their individuality while subscribing to the notion of self-negation through immersion in tradition, Cortazzi concluded that Shimaoka had succeeded in combining the ideal of maintaining the traditions of mingei with the genius of a great artist. This is a fudge, of course, even if expressed with the best of intentions. Artistic genius and mingei are contradictory terms. In its application to new work, mingei is only meaningful as a description of a style or range of styles that symbolises the aspiration to an unachievable if compelling ideal. Cortazzi could have spared himself this conclusion, for in the same year Shimaoka withdrew from the Kokugakai or Japan Art Association, cutting his ties with one of the main organs of the official mingei machinery.

Five years later, in 1996, Shimaoka was appointed a Living National Treasure. The system of living National Treasures is administered through the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs. It was established in the 1950s in order to preserve performing and craft traditions in danger of extinction. This initial scope was soon extended to cover practices that were not necessarily in danger of being lost but were felt to be important for historical or artistic reasons. In the crafts it has been a useful means of giving recognition to makers who pursue artistic originality through the application of traditional skills. In disciplines such as basketry, lacquerwork, metalwork, textiles and woodwork, tradition can be defined relatively easily in terms of the processing techniques used. This is less true of ceramics, however, where from the outset the definition of tradition has been more in terms of style. Providing a pot is made by hand, and perhaps even this need not be a condition, anything goes as long as it makes reference to a Japanese or, more broadly, East Asian historical model. Thus the designation of potters in Karatsu, Hagi, Bizen, Mino and elsewhere is not so much to do with how their pots are made, but what they look like. This is coupled with the way in which an overt cultural agenda has informed the process of identification and institutionalisation of preferred models. These have tended to be, like Momoyama period (1573-1615) tea ceramics, products felt to be particularly Japanese in feeling. For potters working in Chinese and Korean styles, the models have been varieties of ceramics historically consumed in Japan and thereby indigenised into the native aesthetic. Hamada, one might hazard, was made a Living National Treasure because many of his pots drew inspiration from and bore resemblances to the historical models that he, Yanagi and other founders of the mingei movement idealised as the embodiment of a uniquely Asian mode of production.

What is traditional about Shimaoka and his ceramics? Is it that he slab-builds or throws on the wheel, decorates and glazes by hand, and fires in a wood-firing kiln? Or that he lives and works in a beautiful complex of old buildings filled with antiques from all over the world? The view over the still rural town of Mashiko is tranquil and pretty. Visiting his house, as I had the opportunity of doing last summer, one cannot help feeling that the sense of place somehow imbues his work, that there is some truth in Yanagi's idea that objects are born out of the natural conditions surrounding their making. In more concrete terms, though, Shimaoka's ceramics are traditional for their multiple references to historical precedents. Many of his shapes draw on and expand the repertory established by Hamada, who in turn, like Bernard Leach in this country, looked to a variety of early Asian and English models for inspiration. Then there is his use of rope-impressed decoration and its reference to Japanese earthenwares of the Jomon period (10,500-300 BC). These include some of the earliest ceramics ever created and for modern Japanese, who can often be heard fancifully describing themselves in terms of Jomon and Yayoi (Yayoi period; 300 BC-AD 300) archetypes, are full of cultural resonances. Finally there is his use of slip-filling, which derives from Korean punch'ong wares. These and other kinds of Korean stoneware were much sought after by sixteenth century Japanese tea masters and, duly absorbed into Japan, were subsequently extolled by Yanagi and his circle as supreme manifestations of true, non-individualistic, beauty. Shimaoka's adoption of slip-filling may be viewed as a celebration of, and a gesture of respect to, the 'seeing eye' with which Yanagi believed himself endowed and which he ascribed to early Japanese tea practitioners.

So, quiet and wonderfully integrated as Shimaoka's pots may seem, they are also, if one wishes to indulge in this kind of analysis, charged with a heady mixture of references to traditions real and invented. Although they are not pots about ideas and are to be enjoyed for their immediate physicality and visuality, they are certainly pots that are the product of ideas. One thing they are most definitely not is mingei pots.

Rupert Faulkner
Victoria & Albert Museum
May 2001